Commemorating New Zealand’s big dates

A cluster of big dates to remember has inspired a series of new visitor experiences in New Zealand.

Birthdays usually come once a year but when a bunch of significant dates arrive at once, the excitement builds – as it is in New Zealand right now with an anniversary wave that has inspired some fascinating new experiences from major exhibitions to guided tours, a heritage trail and two new public parks.

This cluster of big dates is due – partly, at least – to New Zealand’s relative youth as a nation and a coming of age (of sorts) with a series of historic anniversaries that goes back 200 years to when Māori and Pakeha first got together (1814), 175 years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and establishment of Auckland (1840), and 150 years since Wellington became capital city (1865).

There are also some notable commercial anniversaries with the 75th celebrations for both Air New Zealand (first passenger air link in 1940) and the establishment of the National Film Unit (going back to the beginnings of New Zealand’s film industry) in 1941.

At the same time, there are some more sobering commemorations underway as New Zealand looks back to its involvement in the Great War. 

1814 - First Christmas

The first Māori arrived on New Zealand shores around a thousand years ago – at least 800 years before Europeans – but it wasn’t until the end of 1814 that Māori and Pakeha held their first official gathering.

25 December 2014 marked the bicentenary of the first Christmas Day church service, held on the seashore at Rangihoua Bay – near Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands – where the British missionary Samuel Marsden preached in English to a largely Māori gathering. The Kororipo-Kerikeri Basin is recognised as the place where the country's two major cultures first met and lived, worked and traded together. 

Marsden, who was among the earliest Europeans to learn Māori, and his Christmas sermon are commemorated by the Marsden Cross, now part of the newly opened Rangihoua Heritage Park. Visitors can follow in the ancestors’ footsteps along the Marsden Cross Track, which features illustrated panels telling their story.

Visitors arriving by water land on the beach beside the Marsden Cross on a half-day heritage cruise through the Kerikeri Basin. Fullers Great Sights operate daily guided tours between Paihia and Kerikeri. 

1840 - Treaty of Waitangi

The Bay of Islands is the site of another key event in New Zealand’s history.  175 years ago the country’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed at the British Resident James Busby’s house. 

Treaty House – as it’s known – has been carefully restored and now forms part of the backdrop to the annual Waitangi Day celebrations on February 6.  On the Treaty Grounds, you’ll also find Te Whare Rūnanga, a carved meeting house in traditional form, and the world’s largest ceremonial war canoe, Ngātokimatawhaorua. 

A new museum and education centre is expected to be ready for Waitangi Day 2016.  The Treaty Grounds are open year-around apart from Christmas Day.

1865 – Capital city celebrations

Wellington is celebrating its 150th birthday as the capital this month. To celebrate the city is opening the doors to more than 30 national institutions – including the Cable Car, old Government House and even the Corrections Centre Museum - free of charge with a free hop-on, hop-off bus service to take visitors around the Open House circuit.  

The party culminates with the Big Birthday Party in the grounds of Parliament House, to mark the first sitting of Parliament in Wellington on 26 July 1865.  Tours of the building are available every day with the chance of sitting in when the House is in session. 

1940 – Air New Zealand

2015 is also a big year for Air New Zealand, the national airline.  On 30 April 1940, a flight from Auckland to Sydney marked the first scheduled passenger air link between New Zealand and the rest of the world. 

That and other key moments in the airline’s history feature in an exhibition Air New Zealand 75 Years: Our Nation. The World. Connected which is currently on show at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. The exhibition shifts to the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira on 20 November, just in time for the closing stages of Auckland own 175th birthday celebrations.

1941 – National Film Unit

The new air link was a crucial element in the development of New Zealand’s tourist trade, as was the National Film Unit, established in 1941, 75 years ago next year. 

The NFU produced newsreels, documentaries and promotional films about New Zealand for over 50 years. For a long time it was New Zealand’s only significant film production facility and many of the pioneers of the feature film industry, and many still working in it today, learnt their trade at the NFU.  When it closed in 1991, the Unit’s plant and premises were bought by Sir Peter Jackson and later absorbed into his Park Rd Post facility. 

New landmark exhibitions

Wartime commemorations feature quite large in New Zealand over the next few years.  2014 was of course the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and there are many anniversaries to follow, including this year’s 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, marked by the opening of the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington, along with exhibitions country-wide.  

The Memorial Park, built to create a public space around the National War Memorial, which includes the carillon, the Hall of Memories and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, provides a space for memorials from other countries with which New Zealand had a close military relationship. It’s a place to gather on major ceremonial occasions such as Anzac Day, but is also a place where people can visit on any day of the year.

In Wellington, the wartime anniversaries have inspired two outstanding new exhibitions that are pulling crowds of admirers. ‘The Great War Exhibition’ is occupying the former National Museum which sits above the Memorial Park, and ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’ is on show a short walk away at Te Papa Tongarewa – the Museum of New Zealand.

The Great War Exhibition, opened on 18 April, commemorates the very significant part that New Zealand played in the First World War in a journey rich in personal stories of the contributions made by New Zealanders on the battlefields of Europe and elsewhere, and also at home in war-time New Zealand. This exhibition has been put together under the personal supervision of film producer Sir Peter Jackson and his production company Wingnut Films.

In the second landmark event, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has joined forces with Weta Workshop to create a mega experience based on eight real New Zealanders and their wartime stories. The gigantic figures of seven soldiers and a nurse have been frozen in a moment in time, and at 2.4 times their human scale. 

The 70th anniversary of VE Day and VJ Day also occur in 2015, with the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the 50th of the Battle of Long Tan in the Vietnam War coming up in 2016.

2017 anniversaries to come

Looking further ahead, in 2017, New Zealand will celebrate 150 years of Māori representation in Parliament, centenaries of the Messines and Paschendale battles of WWI, and the arrival of the US Marines in 1942. 

The small seaside town of Paekakariki, half an hour north of Wellington, served as a major base and over 15,000 U.S.Marines were stationed in the area. The Kapiti U.S.Marine's Trust is developing a major project to collect, preserve and promote World War II US Armed Forces history from 1942 - 1944. 

There are two other notable anniversaries in 2017 –the centenary of the introduction of 6 o’clock closing of bars, which was introduced as a war measure in December 1917 but stayed, and stayed, for half a century in fact until its repeal 50 years ago in October 1967.  There are no specific celebrations planned but visitors are encouraged to observe either anniversary, or possibly both, in one of the hundreds of pubs, clubs and bars around the country.

There’s no need for an excuse to visit New Zealand but the list of anniversaries and commemorations is long enough that if you did want one, it’s there.